This is the latest in a weekly series of indyref essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.
Every successful political campaign needs a clear vision. This is as true for our campaign to maintain Scotland’s place in the UK as much as any other. We need to show people how we think the country should develop and grow.
It is not enough to say “with a No vote, you get to keep the pound, the Queen and the UK armed forces. You get a borderless union and the UK pension”. While all of this is true – and points to a stronger, safer and more prosperous future than the alternative – people want to know what will change, as well as what will stay the same.
Each of us – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – have different ideas about how best to develop devolution . Some people find this confusing but it is perfectly natural, as the side advocating No Thanks is a genuine alliance of different political parties. In contrast, the Yes campaign is funded, led and run as an SNP vehicle and therefore has a single point of command and control. The SNP exists and was created to focus on the constitution, whereas most pro-Union representatives entered politics to contest how we can best use political powers to improve people’s real lives, rather than endlessly debate where those powers should lie. I find it heartening, therefore, as we enter these last few crucial weeks of the campaign, that, despite our differences, the separate voices in the pro-UK side of the debate have found so much common ground. We each looked at how best to improve Holyrood, and each identified taxation and welfare as areas to address. It sends out a very powerful message to voters still wondering about which box to tick this September.
So, the vision that we all share after a No vote is one of a more powerful and more balanced Scottish Parliament, backed up by the strength and stability of the whole United Kingdom.
For our own part, the Conservatives strongly believe that a Scottish Parliament, in charge of spending tens of billions of pounds, should be in charge of raising sums too. Future first ministers and finance secretaries should have to look taxpayers in the face and tell them how much of their money they want to take, and what they want to spend it on. Until now, no first minister has had to consider the hard-pressed Scottish taxpayer before deciding spending policy. We think that should change and David Cameron, George Osborne and I have all agreed that we will fight the next election in May on that principle. We have published our plans and they will form the basis of our manifesto in this area.
That joint pledge – to deliver a Scottish Parliament with greater responsibility and greater power – will be a key message from the pro-UK side as we enter the final stages of this campaign. And behind it, I believe it opens the door to something more profound. If independence is settled, and our devolved arrangements are enhanced, I believe it will shift the dividing line in Scottish politics – away from the inward-looking separatist vs Unionist fault line that exists right now, and back to a good, old-fashioned left-right clash of ideas. A proper discussion and debate of the real issues facing people’s lives: improving schools, nursing the health needs of an ageing population, building businesses at home and better exporting goods abroad, and teaching our children that there is nothing they can’t do, no horizon they can’t cross. The next world-beating inventor, industrialist, composer, medical researcher, economist can come from Scotland and develop their talents here too. How best do we make that happen? How best do we support those remarkable individuals while ensuring we raise the standards, opportunities and ambition of all? In short, I believe settling the constitutional question will let us move from a debate about identity to one about ideas.
This is massively overdue in Scotland. For far too long the constitution has been our sole preoccupation. It is vitally important – of course it is. But focusing on the constitution to the exclusion of all else has meant that all these big issues have been subordinated, and pushed to the back of the queue. The endless debate over the constitution has sucked the oxygen away from everything else, stifling discussion of the very areas which Scotland so desperately needs to debate.
The result of this can be seen in the Scottish Parliament every day. Blinded by their passion to make independence happen, the SNP government which controls Holyrood has decided nothing must get in the way or derail the project. No legislation should be passed which could upset any group of key voters and any debate or criticism of SNP plans must be shut down as quickly as possible.
Parliamentary time has been squandered when it could have been put to better use – did we really need a government debate on “One year to go until the Ryder Cup” where MSPs just told their golfing stories? Well, the SNP thought so and devoted more than two-and-a-half hours of government time to it.
The nation is on pause while we settle this issue and we can’t afford any more delays. A stronger devolved parliament, focused on the practical concerns of families, rather than the grievance politics of old, can do just that.
I am a passionate advocate for our United Kingdom. I have travelled from Gretna to Lerwick and back again putting the positive case for the Union, talking to groups in community centres and village halls, taking to the radio and television to outline the benefits as I see them, writing for newspapers, posting leaflets, standing at stalls, answering questions and doing hustings for schools, universities, trade groups and charities. As important as this campaign is – and as committed as I am to it – I look forward to this debate being settled so that the country can come back together and move on.
I want to be involved in a clash of ideas – not about where power lies but about what we do with that power. I want to lead from the centre right on the role of government (clue: it doesn’t involve governments encroaching on the rights of parents with a “named person” for every child), to challenge the idea that taxation is government money – it’s not, it’s people’s money taken from them through taxation and they should keep more of it themselves. And I want a proper, full debate about how we teach our children.
We need to reform our education system in this country. Scotland’s education budget has risen by more than 70 per cent since 2003. Yet, shamefully, figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that in maths and reading we are actually falling behind other European countries. In other nations, innovative reforms are allowing headteachers to take control of their schools and make more of the money they have. Locked into the debate on the constitution, and with few incentives for the Scottish Government to improve and reform, there hasn’t been sufficient time and space for this debate to flourish. We have failed a generation of schoolchildren because we’ve been so busy talking about the constitution, we haven’t given school reform the focus it needs. I want to change that.
Scotland’s political compass needs to shift, away from the old constitutional fist-fight towards a more dynamic, fruitful contest between political principles that, together, have shaped our country.
So the big prize awaiting us after a No vote is that the tremendous energy and passion we have seen from all sides in this referendum debate will be harnessed and put to use debating and dealing with the key issues of our time.
And the key point is that, crucially, we don’t have to separate from the United Kingdom to do that. Very soon, we will all have to decide how we are going to vote in the referendum.
It’s my belief that if we vote No, we can grab the chance to get the best of both worlds: membership of the greatest union of nations ever built, and in our Parliament here in Scotland, a genuine and productive contest of ideas.
• Ruth Davidson is leader of the Scottish Conservatives